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A Day to Reflect on International Criminal Justice

Challenges Highlight Need for Equal Access to Justice

Demonstrators welcoming Karim Khan, International Criminal Court prosecutor, outside the UN Development Programme headquarters in Caracas, Venezuela, October 29, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos

July 17 marks International Criminal Justice Day, the anniversary of the adoption of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) founding treaty. It is a moment to reflect on the global fight against impunity over the past year and the pressing need to extend the reach of justice for victims of serious human rights abuses.

Unprecedented political momentum for accountability for serious international crimes committed during the armed conflict in Ukraine led the ICC to swiftly open an investigation alongside other justice initiatives. While this shows that international support can fast-track accountability efforts, it also highlights potential risks of selectivity.

With 17 country situations now on its docket (the newest involving the Philippines and Venezuela), the ICC faces resource constraints due to underfunding. While several ICC member countries responded to the ICC prosecutor’s call for resources, making pledges in the context of one specific situation risks perceptions of politicization of the court’s work. In contrast, there has been a lack of tangible progress in a number of investigations, including in Palestine and in Afghanistan, where the ICC prosecutor deprioritized scrutiny into crimes allegedly committed by US and Taliban forces, citing in part limited resources.

Beyond financial resources, the ICC also needs political support to further its investigations across its docket. For example, the court’s first Darfur trial is significant for victims, but has highlighted the need for state cooperation in securing the arrest of fugitives. That also holds true in Georgia, where the ICC recently issued arrest warrants.

Domestic accountability efforts over the last year have also been key in providing justice for victims and their families. In Germany, two Syrian ex-intelligence officials were convicted of crimes against humanity, and another court opened the first trial for serious crimes committed in Gambia under former president Yahya Jammeh. The Special Criminal Court in the Central African Republic opened its first trial, offering a “hybrid” model, including both international and national staff.

Governments have also worked to pursue alternative avenues to lay the groundwork for accountability. Last year, the International Court of Justice held new hearings in the case brought by Gambia against Myanmar under the Genocide Convention. States and others have also worked toward creative solutions when United Nations Security Council vetoes have otherwise blocked accountability efforts.

Overall, the events of the last year have demonstrated the imperative of justice at all levels to hold perpetrators of international crimes to account.

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